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This Tormented Business, Part 3

In the June 1985 issue of Compute! magazine, in an otherwise innocuous editorial about font sizes and page layouts and column lengths, Richard Mansfield casually dropped a bombshell: that the number of companies in the PC industry had shrunk by 80% over the past year. Now, the reality was not quite so apocalyptic as that number (not to mention lots of fevered pundits) would make it seem. Many of the people and companies included within it were doubtless dabblers, who saw a chance to jump on a hot new trend, then saw the money wasn’t going to come so easily after all and walked away again. But still… 80%. Let’s look at some more numbers to try to unpack what that figure means.

Home computer installed base, 1978-1982

The chart above shows the numbers of actively used computers in American homes between 1978 and 1982. The first big spike came in the latter year, when cheap machines like the Commodore VIC-20, the Texas Instruments 99/4A, and the Timex Sinclair came online in a big way just as the videogame console market began to go soft. Home computers, the pundits said, were the logical successors to that fad, and consumers seemed to agree by almost quintupling their numbers in the space of a single year.

Actual and projected installed base of home computers, 1982-1987

The chart above shows the actual and forecasted installed base of active home-computer users between 1982 and 1987. As you can see, things continued to go swimmingly through 1983 — the peak of the home-computer wars, Jack Tramiel and Commodore’s year of triumph. By year’s end, following the most spectacular Christmas of the 1980s for the home-computer industry, the number of computers in American homes was over 250% of what it had been at the beginning of the year. With millions upon millions of American homes still unconverted, everyone assumed that this was only the beginning of the beginning, that growth by leaps and bounds was inevitable until the end of the decade at least.

Things didn’t work out that way. Not only did 1984 fall short of projections by more than 50%, but sales to first-time buyers weren’t even sufficient to make up for those who got bored with their balky toys from the previous year or two and relegated them to closets, first step on their long, gradual journeys to the dumpster. (One research firm would later estimate that consumers threw out 1.5 million home computers in 1985 alone.) I’ve talked in earlier articles about the many perfectly good, sensible reasons that consumers grew so quickly disillusioned with their purchases, a list which includes a complete lack of killer apps — beyond games, that is — for the average household, the pain of actually using these primitive machines, and hidden costs in the form of all of the extra hardware and software needed to do much of anything with one of them. Home computers just didn’t live up to the hype; at least the old Atari VCS really was cheap and simple and fun, exactly as advertised. Most Americans found home computers to be none of these things. Their experience of 1982 and 1983 was bad enough to sour many of them on computers for a decade or more.

As bad as the chart above looks, it took a surprising amount of time for the industry to realize just how far off-track things had gone. 1984 was a paradoxical year of mixed messages in many respects, one that saw for instance the Apple II and Infocom both enjoy their biggest sales years ever. It wasn’t until 1984 became 1985, and the industry counted its dollars and woke up to the realization that the Christmas just past had been a deeply disappointing one, that the full scale of the problems set in and the dying-home-computer-industry became as big a media meme as the home-computer-as-social-revolution had been just a year or two before.

Still, some knew long before that something was very, very wrong. The bellweather of virtually any consumer-facing industry has always been — prior, at least, to the Internet age — its magazines. A healthy, growing industry means lots of readers buying at newsstands and signing up for subscriptions, as well as lots of vigorous new companies eager to advertise, to tell the public about all the new stuff they have to sell them. Conversely, when interest and sales begin to flag the newsstands start to reduce their magazine selection to make more room for other subjects, subscriptions are allowed to lapse, and advertising budgets are the quickest and least immediately painful things to cut. And as the first companies start to fold, those with whom they’ve signed advertising contracts tend to be about the last creditors to get paid. Woe betide the magazine that’s let itself go too far out on a limb — like, you know, one assuming it’s a part of an industry likely to grow almost exponentially for years to come — when that happens. The carnage in the magazines, those engines of excitement and advice and community, was appalling during the eighteen months between mid-1984 and the end of 1985.

The period was bookended by two particularly painful losses. Softalk, the de facto voice of the Apple II community, simply never appeared again after an apparently business-as-usual August 1984 issue. An even sadder loss was that of Creative Computing, which at least got to say goodbye in a last editorial (“Great While It Lasted”) in its last issue in December of 1985. The first newsstand magazine devoted to personal and, well, creative computing, it had been founded by David Ahl, a visionary if ever there was one, in October of 1974, months before the Altair. Ahl sold the magazine to the big conglomerate Ziff-Davis in 1982, but remained on as editor-in-chief right through to that last editorial. Throughout its run Creative Computing remained relentlessly idealistic about the potential for personal computing, always thinking about next year and of what the products they reviewed meant in the context of the ongoing PC revolution as a whole. Just to take one example: in response to the arrival of the first prototype laser-disc players in 1976, the magazine laid out a manifesto for what would come to be known as multimedia computing well over ten years later.

David H. Ahl

David H. Ahl

Creative Computing also published books, the best selling, most important, and most beloved of which was titled simply BASIC Computer Games, a compendium of type-in listings featuring games that had been making the rounds of The People’s Computer Company and the pages of Creative Computing itself for years. BASIC Computer Games sold a staggering one-million copies in English and in translations to French and German, years before any pre-packaged computer game would come close to such a feat. Many a young hacker pecked out its listings and then started to experiment by changing a variable here or a statement there, learning in the process the wonderful quality that separates computers from game consoles and just about every other form of electronic entertainment: that you can use the same device you play games on to also make games, or just about anything else you want. Creative computing indeed. The voice of Ahl, every bit as much a pioneer as a Steve Wozniak or Steve Jobs, would be sorely missed in the years to come. Ironically, his magazine’s end came just as machines like the Macintosh and Amiga were arriving to begin to bring to fruition some of his more expansive predictions of earlier years. (One of Creative Computing‘s last issues featured a gushing review of the Amiga which called it nothing less than “a new medium of expression.”) It’s a sign of the immense respect with which Ahl and his magazine were still viewed in the industry that several competing magazines took the time to remark the loss of Creative Computing and offer a warm eulogy — an act of graciousness unusual indeed in the increasingly cutthroat world of computer publishing. As Info magazine noted, “There could be no better history of personal computing than a complete collection of Creatives.”

In 1985 the pain spread in earnest to the software industry. Many pioneering companies, including some we’ve met in earlier articles on this blog, collapsed during the year. Any company that hadn’t shed its old crufty hacker’s skin and learned to start behaving like professionals was doomed, as were many who had listened a bit too much to the professionals and pundits and over-expanded and over-borrowed in the expectation of the perpetually-exploding industry that had been promised them. Also doomed was anyone whose creations just weren’t good enough; those users who had chosen to stick with this computer thing were far savvier and more demanding than the neophytes of earlier years. Muse Software of Castle Wolfenstein fame was amongst the victims, as was our more recent acquaintance Synapse Software, who were shuttered by Brøderbund barely a year after they acquired them. The Carlstons may have been nice folks, but their company didn’t survive by throwing good money after bad, and neither of Synapse’s principal assets — their expertise with the fading Atari 8-bit line and their Electronic Novel line — were worth much of anything in the evolving industry order.

Indeed, adventure-game makers were if anything hit even harder than the rest of the industry. By mid-1985 it was becoming clear that bookware had been a blind alley; virtually nothing in the category, excepting only Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, did much of anything commercially. Companies like Spinnaker (owner of the Telarium and Windham Classics brands) and Brøderbund now began to divest themselves of their bookware assets almost as eagerly as they had acquired them. So much for the dream of a new interactive literature. Other expectations were also dramatically tempered. Trip Hawkins, for instance, was finally forced to give up on his dream of game designers as the rock stars of the 1980s and a shelf of games joining a shelf of records inside every hip living room. Electronic Arts now retrenched and refocused on becoming a big, highly respected fish in the relatively tiny pond of hardcore gaming (the only kind of gaming there was in this window between the Atari VCS’s collapse and the arrival of Nintendo). Yes, computer games were just computer games again.

Almost unremarked amidst all of the bankruptcies and retractions and cancellations was the collapse of Scott Adams’s Adventure International, one of the oldest of all the companies we’ve met on this site. Whether due to stubbornness or lack of funds or failure of vision or simple loyalty to what had brung’em, Adams had refused for years to upgrade his core technology, continuing to sell the same little 16 K, two-word-parser games he had started writing back in 1978. Their revamp into the SAGA line added crude graphics to the equation, but little else. Thus Infocom had long since stolen Adams’s crown as the king of adventure-gaming, not so much by besting him as by Adams not even trying to compete. Adams instead fed — and, for a time, quite well — on the ultra-low-end market, those machines like the Commodore VIC-20 and Texas Instruments 99/4A that weren’t a whole lot more capable than the original TRS-80 on which he’d first written Adventureland. These machines, unfortunately, were exactly the ones which found their way into closets and attics with the most frequency after the home-computer boom passed its heyday. Therein lay the root of AI’s troubles.

By 1984 much or most of Adventure International’s revenue was coming from Britain, thus belatedly justifying the company’s name, chosen in a fit of optimism when Adams and his wife were still making packaging out of baby-bottle liners and struggling to grasp the vagaries of wholesale pricing; expansion across an ocean must have seemed far-fetched indeed at that time. With their more modest cassette-based computers, their absolute mania for adventures, and their accompanying willingness to forgive faults and limitations Americans no longer were, Britons offered Adams a more hospitable market all around. An independent quasi-subsidiary, Adventure International UK, offered not just the classic dozen original Scott Adams games and the OtherVentures titles, but also many more games written in Britain by British authors like the prolific Brian Howarth using Adams’s engine. Adams himself was a celebrity amongst British adventurers. Everyone knew him for his crazy Afro that made him easy to spot across a crowded trade-show floor, and the magazines jostled for quotes and interviews and the fans for autographs whenever he made one of his occasional trips across the pond.

Scott Adams hams it up for the British press

Scott Adams hams it up for the British press

In late 1983 or early 1984 a tremendous opportunity to improve Adventure International’s standing on both continents virtually fell into Adams’s lap. Joe Calamari, an executive vice president with Marvel Comics, called Adams out of the blue to propose that Marvel and AI collaborate on a line of games and accompanying comic books starring the Marvel superheroes. While it would take many years for Marvel to catch up to their perpetual arch-rivals DC Comics in bringing their brand to the masses via the multiplexes, Marvel at this time was making a modest but in its way innovative push into trans-media storytelling via deals like this one and the one they inked around the same with TSR of Dungeons and Dragons fame to do a Marvel tabletop RPG. Their choice of Adventure International for the computer-game license could be read as surprising; AI was hardly at the cutting edge of the game industry, and given the huge demographic overlap between gamers and comics readers the Marvel license would certainly have been appealing to other, slicker publishers. Perhaps AI’s support for the cheap low-end machines, not to mention their games’ typical price of $12 or so as opposed to $30 or more, led Marvel to consider them a better fit for their generally younger readers. (As with science fiction, the golden age for superheroes is about twelve.) As possible evidence of exactly this thought process, consider that Commodore, who may have suggested AI to Marvel and apparently did play some sort of intermediary role in the negotiations, had been doing very well with cartridge versions of the first five Scott Adams adventures on the VIC-20 throughout the peak years of the home-computer boom.

It’s hard not to compare this early, crude experiment in trans-media storytelling with the Marvel of today, whose characters feature in cinematic extravaganzas costing hundreds of millions to produce. We’ve certainly come a long way. (Whether it’s a change for the better is of course in the eye of the beholder.) It’s also yet another sign of just how huge text adventures were for a few years there that Marvel chose this format for the games at all. The cerebral pleasures of text and puzzles hardly feel like an obvious fit for the “Wham! Bam! Pow!” action of a superhero comic — not that this marks the strangest mismatch between form and content of the bookware era.

Marvel's Hulk QuestProbe issue

Adams signed a deal to make a dozen games with Marvel, one that gave him a crazy amount of creative freedom. He gave the series its truly awful name, the uncomfortably medicinal-sounding QuestProbe. (It’s choices like this that distinguish companies like AI, who couldn’t afford PR firms and image advisers or just couldn’t be bothered, from companies like Infocom who could. As for Marvel, who knows what they were thinking…) He also got a pleasure that would turn any superhero-loving kid — and more than a few superhero-loving adults — a Hulk-like green with envy: he outlined a story to accompany each game, then gave it to Marvel to be turned into a full-blown comic book to be sold as part of a “Scott Adams/Marvel Comic Limited Series.”

The Human Torch and The Thing

The Human Torch and The Thing

Alas, the Marvel deal, AI’s last, best chance to live and possibly even prosper, turned into an opportunity squandered. The QuestProbe games are painfully, shamefully bad by just about every criterion. The graphics are crude and ugly, the prose strangled, the situations all but incomprehensible (especially if you aren’t lucky enough to have the accompanying comic to hand), and the puzzles a hopeless mix of the inane and the inscrutable. They are, in other words, pretty much like all the other Scott Adams games after the first half-dozen or so, and that just wasn’t good enough anymore, even for the patience of twelve-year-olds. After the first game, which featured the Hulk, was roundly panned even by the forgiving gaming press (the making of a game bad enough to achieve that was something of a feat in itself), Adams did begin to include some modest innovations: the next game, featuring Spider-Man, debuted at last a parser capable of understanding more than two words (not that it was otherwise up to much); and the third and as it turned out final game, featuring the Human Torch and the Thing, had you controlling both characters, able to switch between them at will — an interesting idea badly executed. By the time that third game trickled out in mid-1985, AI was already collapsing.

Adams today notes the immediate cause of AI’s failure, no doubt accurately, as a rash of returned product from distributors who had over-ordered in anticipation of a big Christmas rush that never materialized. AI, which had never attracted the injections of venture capital and the accompanying professional financial oversight of fellow pioneers like Sierra, found themselves unable to pay back their distributors. With no one willing to extend them credit given conditions in the industry as a whole, there was no viable recourse but bankruptcy. Yet the deeper cause was Adams’s inability or unwillingness to change his games with the times. He’s stated many times in interviews that he virtually never looked at any of the games produced by his rivals; for instance, he never played an Infocom game after Zork. His logic was that he didn’t want to have his designs “polluted” by ideas and puzzles of others. This is, at best, an odd stance to take; try to imagine a novelist who refuses to read books, or a musician who doesn’t listen to music. It perhaps does much to explain the time-warp quality of the QuestProbe games. It’s strange that the man who had the vision and the technical chops to get viable adventures working on 16 K microcomputers in the first place should prove so unable to further iterate on that first masterful leap, but there you have it. Adams went on with his professional life as a programmer outside of the game industry, and Adventure International passed quietly into history.

Nigel Bamford, Michael Woodroffe, and Patricia Woodroffe of Adventure International UK

Nigel Bamford, Michael Woodroffe, and Patricia Woodroffe of Adventure International UK

One part of the brief-lived AI empire did survive. Mike Woodroffe, head of the still-viable Adventure International UK, disentangled that organization from its erstwhile namesake and renamed it Adventure Soft. The company would go on to a long if only sporadically active life as a developer of graphic adventures, whose biggest games became the Simon the Sorcerer series, The Feeble Files, and two Elvira-themed pseudo-CRPGs. Adventure Soft continues as an at least nominally going concern today, although their website is little more than a storefront for sometimes decades-old titles.

All told, then, 1985 was a brutal year in American software and particularly games software, one that weeded out the weak sisters like Adventure International, Muse, Synapse, and countless others without remorse — not to mention the casualties in publishing and hardware and still other, ancillary areas. Old timers who had grown up as hackers with many of the year’s casualties can be forgiven for seeing it in terms as apocalyptic as did the more hyperbole-prone members of the media. David Ahl, from his final Creative Computing editorial:

The personal-computing industry is largely composed of adolescent companies and inexperienced managers being forced to grow up much too fast by market forces that they themselves created. The big guys are sailing in with battleships, and the friendly competition of a few years ago has become all-out war with no holds barred. The media smells blood and death, which makes for interesting reading (and sales). Their alarmist disaster stories have simply exacerbated the situation.

Still, if we’re seeking silver linings they aren’t that hard to come by. Just to take the obvious: another look at the chart above will show that, if the home-computer user base wasn’t growing much, it also — that one brief blip in 1984 aside — wasn’t shrinking either. There was still a very viable, even vibrant market there. It was just a market that had reached an equilibrium far, far sooner than anyone had anticipated. The pain of 1985 was the pain of adjusting expectations to match that reality — the reality that numbers of computers in homes wouldn’t increase in big jumps again until the arrival of the Internet and cheap multimedia PCs in the early 1990s gave everyone a good reason to own one. The generation of microcomputers sandwiched between those and the old 8-bits — the Apple Macintosh, the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga, the Tandy 1000 and a rash of other ever cheaper and more capable MS-DOS-based machines — would seldom be sold to complete neophytes. They would rather go to people looking to upgrade their old Apple IIs, Commodore 64s, Atari 800s, and TRS-80s. A tempering of expectations, especially for hardware makers, would be necessary. Not everyone would upgrade, after all, meaning home-computer sales wouldn’t come close to their 1983 peak for many years to come. As David Thornburg noted in a perceptive article for Compute! magazine, computers were and would for years remain a hobby, not an everyday home appliance.

If you go to someone’s house and see a computer sitting in the den, I’ll bet you say, “Hey, I see you’re into computers. How about that!”

Have you ever gone into someone’s house and said, “Hey! I see you’re into refrigerators. Wow! Automatic ice-cube maker too! I was going to get one of those myself — thought I’d get a 16-cube model, but then I heard that the 32-cubers were going to come out soon.”

If the home computer was an appliance, we would talk about it like one.

David Ahl offered another comparison to explain why the home computer hadn’t yet achieved appliance status and wasn’t likely to for some time to come.

People who don’t have computers are looking for user friendliness of a sort that just isn’t available today. You can rent a car virtually anywhere in the world and in a minute or two be familiar enough with the vehicle and local traffic laws to drive off with a reasonable degree of confidence. When it is that easy to use a computer, then manufacturers can legitimately speak of user friendliness. We are a long way from that point today.

When a reeling software industry proved unable to fill the space allocated for it at the 1985 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, a big chunk was instead given over to pornographic videos, an industry that was thriving on the back of booming VCR sales in exactly the way the software industry wasn’t on lukewarm home-computer sales. Game consoles and home computers may come and go, but some interests are eternal.

If you were a committed gamer in for the long haul, however, the outcome of all this chaos was arguably at least as positive as it was negative. With computer owners an ever savvier and more experienced lot unwilling to suffer bad or even mediocre games anymore, with publishers all competing frantically for a big enough slice of a fixed pie to keep them alive, games in general just kept getting better at a prodigious rate. By 1986 developers would be taking the Commodore 64 in particular to places that would have been simply unimaginable when the machine debuted back in 1982. And as for the next-generation machines… well, even more splendid work was in the offing there. Everything was improving: not just graphics and sound but also the craft of design.

But before we can revel too much in the positives we have more pain to address. Next time we’ll look at Infocom’s disastrous 1985, the year that came within a whisker of cutting off the most beloved canon in interactive fiction at the halfway mark.

(My huge thanks to C. David Seuss, former CEO of Spinnaker Software, who answered my questions about this era, pointed me to a useful Harvard Business School Case Study, and provided the charts shown above and other documents. The usual thanks also to Jason Scott, whose interview with Scott Adams for Get Lamp was also invaluable. Useful magazine sources this time included: Compute! of March 1985, June 1985, and January 1986; Your Computer of November 1985; Creative Computing of December 1985; Computer Gaming World of January 1985; Computer and Video Games of May 1986; Info of December 1985/January 1986. Finally, if you don’t believe me that the QuestProbe games are really, really bad, feel free to download them in their Commodore 64 incarnations and see for yourself.)

 
 

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The Quill

The Quill

Let’s begin today by stepping back in time to the dawn of the PC era (and the early days of this blog): 1978. The debut of Scott Adams’s Adventureland that year also marked the debut of the world’s first reuseable adventure-gaming engine, in which a single interpreter program runs a variety of different games by being fed different databases. And reuse the system Adams did, to the tune of six titles released in 1979 alone, while the rest of the computing world set to work figuring out how the system was put together. Two TRS-80 hackers, Allan Moluf and Bruce Hanson, were particularly dedicated. By January of 1980 they were distributing to select buddies a text file which described Adams’s database format in careful detail along with a set of utilities for examining existing games. By 1981 they had written the Adventure Executor, a new interpreter capable of playing any of Adams’s games; just provide it with the database file. And their efforts culminated in early 1982 in The Adventure System, a complete authoring package that let you create new games in the Scott Adams database format as well as dissect existing ones to your heart’s content for the low, low price of $40.

The Adventure System as advertised in the March 1982 80 Microcomputing

The Adventure System as advertised in the March 1982 80 Microcomputing

For various reasons, starting with the TRS-80 platform on which it ran being rather isolated from the rest of the computing world and ending with the small print that demanded a $200 license fee to use The Adventure System to create commercial adventures, it never caught on. Moluf and Hanson, however, were not alone in their inquisitiveness. Others across the pond were also looking hard at the Scott Adams games. Their efforts would have much more lasting repercussions.

During the earliest days of personal computing in Britain, when practitioners consisted of just a few tens of thousands of soldering-iron-wielding dreamers, one Ken Reed managed to get hold of an imported TRS-80 along with some of the Scott Adams games. Like Moluf and Hanson, Reed was as interested in figuring out how they worked as he was in playing them. He doggedly pulled the system apart, and published his findings in the August 1980 Practical Computing magazine, the nearest equivalent British hobbyists had to the American hackers’ favorite Byte. Reed’s article wasn’t so obviously practical as the work of Moluf and Hanson. It didn’t provide exact specifications of the Scott Adams database format, nor tools for hacking on the games, nor even a complete original game or a complete interpreter for running a game. No, it provided something that in the long run would prove to be much more empowering: a detailed proposal for making an engine similar to Adams’s for yourself, complete with pseudo-code listings that could be applied to virtually any platform you had handy and knew how to program.

The impact the article had on British gaming over the following decade can hardly be overstated. Richard Turner and Chris Thornton, two university students, formed Artic Computing and used the article as the basis for their own line of Adams-like adventures that began with Planet of Death, likely the first commercial text adventure written in Britain, in June of 1981. Many variations on the article’s approach were soon appearing in other games. But its most important descendent was not a standalone game at all but a complete adventure-writing system similar in spirit to The Adventure System. This system, however, got several things right that the older system had gotten so wrong. It was called The Quill, and it was the brainchild of a Welshman in his late twenties named Graeme Yeandle.

When Yeandle analyzed those early Artic games and found them to be put together in a way suspiciously similar to Reed’s system, his first reaction was to think that he could do that just as well as Turner and Thornton. He went so far as to write to Artic to offer his services, but never got a reply to his letter. Whilst messing about with adventure-game databases and interpreters on his new Spectrum, he noticed an advertisement for a local publisher called Gilsoft, located just twelve miles from his Cardiff home — in fact, in the town where he had been born, Barry. He decided to pay their office a visit. On doing so, he learned that “they” were a single teenager named Tim Gilberts, and the “office” was Gilberts’s bedroom in the family home. Still, Gilberts was bright and ambitious, and the two hit it off. (Gilberts thought Yeandle “looked just like Clive Sinclair.”) When Yeandle told him about his adventure-game experiments, Gilberts encouraged him to make a real game for him to market. He ended up writing two, Time-Line and Magic Castle, which Gilberts sold through modest classified ads in the magazines for £5 each (the former, the smaller and simpler of the pair, as the companion to another game on the same tape).

About this time Yeandle realized, like many a programmer before him, that he could save a great deal of time in the long run if he spent some time now improving his development tools. While he was using a variation of the design scheme from Reed’s article, he was still constructing the database files laboriously by hand. He discussed with Gilberts his idea for a menu-driven data-entry system to automate the process. If it worked out it could become a sort of house adventure-authoring system which Gilberts could share with other prospective authors. Gilberts enthusiastically agreed, and Yeandle spent most of his nights and weekends during 1983 — this was still very much a sideline; he was employed full-time as a systems analyst — working on what would become The Quill. As the program grew more refined, Gilberts made a new proposal: instead of just using it in-house to make more adventures, why not sell it as a product in its own right, and open adventure authorship to anyone with a Speccy? And so was the adventure-game scene in Britain changed forever.

The Quill was greeted rapturously when it debuted just in time for the 1983 Christmas season. Micro-Adventurer magazine, which appropriately enough debuted at almost the same instant, called it a “revolution” in their very first issue: “Once in a while, a product comes along to revolutionize the whole microcomputer scene. The Quill is one such, and will change the face of the microcomputer adventure.” The Quill sold for just £15, and — and this is absolutely key to everything that followed — Gilsoft asked for no cash royalty for commercial works created with it, only that you insert a little “Made with The Quill!” blurb somewhere in the final work. Most other commercial systems for creating adventure and CRPG games, both before and after The Quill, didn’t offer such convenient terms, sharply limiting their appeal.

Sales were so brisk that Gilsoft soon gave up bothering to sell much of anything else; Gilberts was more than content to run the house that The Quill had built. Within weeks of its release so-called “Quilled adventures” were everywhere. By a year or so after that at least half of the adventures on the British market were Quilled — and that’s not even considering all of the less ambitious creators who just toyed around making games for family and friends, or released their games for free into public-domain channels.

About a year after The Quill, Gilsoft released The Illustrator, which let users add graphics to their games. It ended up selling almost as well as The Quill itself, and soon the requisite illustrated Quilled games were flooding the market. Gilsoft also funded ports of the system to most of the other viable British platforms, although sadly there was no easy way of moving an adventure database created on, say, a Spectrum to the BBC Micro or Commodore 64 short of reentering the whole by hand. As the system spread across Europe, now catching onto the PC revolution at last, countless souls used it to create games in their native languages.

Quilled games in Swedish, Italian, Spanish, and Czech

Quilled games in Swedish, Italian, Spanish, and Czech

Many of the earliest adventures in German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and the Scandinavian and Eastern European languages were Quilled. An attempt was also made to market The Quill in North America as The Adventure Writer, but without much success. It was entrusted there to a tiny company called Codewriter who lacked the resources to make it known and widely distributed in that more intimidating and elitist marketplace. And so, like so much else in the bifurcated computing culture of the 1980s, The Quill remained an exclusively European phenomenon.

The Quill's menu system, where thousands of adventure authors spent thousands of hours

The Quill’s menu system, where thousands of adventure authors spent thousands of hours

Given the sorts of tools available to adventure writers today, The Quill is bound to seem underwhelming when we load it up on our Speccy emulator. One doesn’t really program a game at all using The Quill; one simply enters its data, menu by menu, filling in its rooms, its objects, its text. The logic available to the author is hard-coded into the interpreter, and not very complex at that. Nor is the process of creation a very intuitive one. It’s very difficult to get any sense of the big picture from all of these granular menu views. One is best served by planning one’s game out entirely on paper, using The Quill itself very much as the simple data-entry front-end it was originally conceived as. Even on those terms many trivial tasks are painfully tedious. The parser doesn’t really parse at all. There’s just a simple pattern matcher, which the author must micro-manage to the finest detail. One cannot simply define an object as takeable, for example, but must hand-enter the command that will allow it to be taken and dropped — and must do this separately for every single takeable object in the game. (Much of this tedium was removed in later versions of The Quill. See John Elliott’s comment below.)

Amidst all of the excitement following the system’s debut, some did voice a concern that it would lead to a rash of games that were not only primitive but all primitive in the same idiosyncratic way. Such fears were by no means entirely baseless. To some extent this is problem with any authoring system; I wouldn’t be the first to note that Graham Nelson’s droll English diction has become the voice of contemporary interactive fiction thanks to the default messages of Inform, the mostly widely used development system today. The Quill’s limitations and lack of flexibility merely make it even more immediately obvious to any experienced adventurer that she is playing a Quilled game. That said, The Quill’s relatively long life gave plenty of people plenty of time to dig deep, to learn to push it and to learn to hack it. Much better, more complex works could be created with it than you might expect after a few minutes of fiddling around in its menus. Given the limitations of the 48 K Spectrum on which it runs, The Quill is put together in a very smart way. The average Quilled game is not only easier to create but more pleasant to play than (at the least) the average BASIC game. Tellingly, no one managed to come up with a system notably better for the Spectrum and equivalent machines despite the obvious commercial potential of such a beast.

Until Yeandle himself, that is: in late 1986 GilSoft released his second-generation system, the Professional Adventure Writer (PAW). Arriving fairly late in the day for text adventures as a mainstream gaming staple, at least in Britain, it didn’t become quite the phenomenon that The Quill had been, but did power many more games throughout Europe well into the 1990s.

Indeed, it’s for that legacy of empowerment that PAW and (especially) The Quill deserve to be remembered today. It’s not that established software houses didn’t use The Quill; they did, to a surprising degree. Even Artic Computing, who had ignored Yeandle earlier, started using the Quill to create some of their new adventures. So did no less a light than Melbourne House of The Hobbit fame. But it’s mostly for all the little guys that The Quill seemed a minor miracle. North America had nothing comparable, and, presumably in consequence, far fewer independent voices making and selling text adventures. Europe, by contrast, was blessed in having not only The Quill but a marketplace willing to accept and buy works by the inspired amateurs who used it. Gilberts himself was well aware of the democratizing effect of The Quill:

Anyone who wants to write can produce a novel without technical knowledge. You may not create great art but there’s nothing to stop you trying. The Quill has opened up the same kind of opportunity to those who enjoy adventuring. We’ve tried to provide the computer equivalent of pen and paper.

No, most Quilled adventures are not great art or even great games, and they’re not likely to get as much attention on this blog as they may deserve given that I have so many other titles that qualify at least as the latter to sort through. Yet many are personal, idiosyncratic works of the sort gaming could always use more of. The best of them have a real writerly personality, another thing always in short supply in gaming fictions. Some of the most fun, and arguably the most culturally useful, Quilled adventures are the ones that satirize the solemn pretensions (especially of the high-fantasy stripe) of mainstream gaming culture then and now — titles like Bored of the Rings, The Boggit, Loads of Midnight, The Big Sleaze, or the immortal Dildo and the Dark Lord (did I mention that Quilled adventures were also more liable to traffic in sex than the titles from bigger publishers?).

The person with the most amazing Quill story of all might just be John Wilson, the founder of Zenobi Software. After publishing a few of his own Quilled games on the label in the mid-1980s and seeing them do fairly well, Wilson began soliciting games from outside authors. Even as the bigger publishers gradually got out of text adventures, Wilson built a successful if modest business out of selling the games via mail order, communicating with customers via a newsletter and whatever magazine advertising he could afford that month. Zenobi alone published almost 250 games, the vast majority of them created with The Quill or PAW, before hanging it up at last in the shockingly late year of 1997, by which time Gilsoft and the rest of the gaming milieu that had birthed Zenobi were long gone. All of which is enough to qualify Zenobi as the most prolific of commercial text-adventure publishers, the most long-lived, and the last to give it up, and all by a wide margin.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, The Quill and PAW were easily the most widely used adventure-creation systems of the 1980s. In the whole of computing history they’re rivaled only by Graham Nelson’s various Inform incarnations, which may have powered a comparable number of games by now but have taken some twenty years to do it. The architect of this creative explosion, Graeme Yaendle, never gave up his day job and never made as much money from it as you might expect. He recalls that in the wake of The Quill’s first gush of popularity in 1984 his royalty checks from Gilsoft actually amounted to more than his regular pay check — but “that didn’t last long.” The Quill was, even more so than most software, widely pirated. It’s safe to say that many of those Quilled games being sold in magazine adverts were themselves made with pirated copies; GilSoft didn’t have any practical way to keep tabs on who had bought and who hadn’t. Even their modest request that users include a mention of The Quill in their Quilled games also went unenforced and widely ignored. And consumers will always outnumber creators in any time and place, meaning that even an insanely popular engine of creation like The Quill will never sell more than a fraction of the copies of a hit game. Gilsoft and Yeandle could probably have made considerably more money from The Quill by pricing it higher and being more aggressive about asserting their rights in various areas. But Gilsoft wasn’t Microsoft and young Gilberts was no Bill Gates; he was happy if the business just paid for “my beer and a car.” Anyway, The Quill was so successful precisely because it was so cheap and easy; changes to Gilsoft’s business model could likely only have diminished its impact.

As a consolation prize for fame and fortune, Yeandle and Gilberts got to see their creation getting used all around them, the most satisfying validation any programmer or engineer (or artist?) can enjoy. And they got to know that their work was allowing people to be creative in a medium that would otherwise have been inaccessible to them. At least in retrospect, that seems like more than enough.

(Much of this article was sourced from an old interview with Yaendle from The Solution Archive. Yeandle’s now-defunct home page was also invaluable. And see also the Gilsoft features in Sinclair User #28 and #37. I discovered much of Moluf and Hanson’s work while digging through old TRS-80 file archives, an often productive if exhausting way of researching.)

 

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SAGA

I haven’t had much to say recently about Scott Adams, the man who first brought adventure games to PCs. But he was out there through all of the developments I’ve covered since the last time I wrote a post about him, continuing to run Adventure International and to slowly expand his stable of simple 16 K adventures. I called AI the Dollar General of the early software industry in that last post, and I don’t know how to express it any better today. It existed in a sort of hazy space between publisher and mail-order catalog retailer; many of its programs were also available in other ways thanks to non-exclusive publishing agreements, and most were available only via the catalogs or the company’s single Longwood, Florida storefront (“Just 40 minutes from DISNEY WORLD!”), never finding their way into shops. AI is perhaps best seen as a bridge between the very earliest days of microcomputer software, when semi-altruistic organizations like SoftSide magazine’s TRS-80 Software Exchange and Creative Computing‘s equivalent organ acted as mere middlemen to help programmers sell their creations, and the modern paradigm that had fallen pretty firmly into place by 1982, of software publishers that functioned like book or record publishers in demanding exclusive rights from the actual creators and aggressively marketing those creations under their own brand.

In the long run such a business model was going to be problematic for AI, as the new order asserted itself more and more. As of 1982, however, they were still doing well within their niche. Their catalogs remained the same ramshackle pile of junk, oddities, and the occasional gem, all priced much cheaper than the more polished products of the competition. Sometimes, when AI felt they had a particularly hot product on their hands, they would try to pierce their insularity and play with the On-Lines and Brøderbunds, yet without losing the same weirdly, um, casual approach to basic English diction that marked their catalogs and the adventures of their founder.

I don’t think “penultimate” means what you think it does, Mr. AI Copywriter. At moments like this there’s something almost lovable about AI’s happy slapdashery.

Space war games aside, AI’s flagship titles remained their adventure games. Despite being like Ken Williams and Doug Carlston in needing to spend more and more time running a company and less and less hacking, Scott Adams managed to author another of these in 1981, Savage Island Part 2, and also co-authored Golden Voyage with a university student named William Demas. This brought AI’s line of official Scott Adams games to the neat dozen that have passed into history as the original Scott Adams canon. By 1982 their OtherVentures line, a grab bag of games not authored by the master himself, consisted of an additional five titles of varying technical approaches and quality, among them yet another port of Crowther and Woods’s original Adventure and Lance Micklus’s landmark Dog Star Adventure. But now AI’s comfortable position was beginning to feel threatened by the innovations of other companies. To understand why, let’s step back for just a moment to survey the adventuring field as a whole.

There’s a simple narrative about the life and (commercial) death of the text adventure that most of you interested enough to read this blog probably know all too well already. In the beginning, it goes, adventure games were all text all the time. But then came Mystery House, and in the years that followed more and more makers began adding pictures to their games, which became more and more important, until finally they were all that was left. Throw in the requisite appreciation of Infocom and a few other holdouts who stayed with text until it was painfully obvious that that way lay madness, and that’s pretty much the story.

As simplified encapsulations go, the story is fine. Still, there are things that surprised me when I started to look closely at the actual timeline of releases. One of those was just how quickly games with graphics came to dominate the market in the wake of Mystery House and (especially) The Wizard and the Princess, at least on machines like the Apple II that had the ability to display reasonable pictures. A flood of other “hi-res adventures” followed On-Line’s into the market, so many that On-Line would eventually feel the need to start suing others for using what they saw as their own name for their own unique line of games. Already in its May 1982 issue Softline magazine wrote that “the demands of the market are weighted heavily toward hi-res graphics” in adventure games.

Put crudely, we might say that text-adventure makers sorted themselves into two groups: those who saw text as a necessary kludge only, and got away from it as quickly as possible (the vast majority); and those who defined themselves by a more literary sensibility of which the use of text was an essential part (largely only Infocom at this point, although a handful of others would spring up to follow their example). In other words, are you working with text because there’s no other choice given technological constraints, or out of an intrinsic fascination with the medium? Let’s call the former group Type 1; the latter Type 2. This dichotomy continues to persist today; those who continue to write and play textual interactive fiction out of a love of the form itself often confuse others who see text adventures only as an early, primitive form of gaming technology that was quickly and thankfully replaced with something better.

The big, obvious drawback of including graphics was that they used precious memory and disk space on machines that had little of either to spare. Still, most players were entranced enough by pictures that they were willing to accept the tradeoff of less or worse everything else: total text, total length, parser, world modeling, execution speed, etc. The Apple II commercial adventure market by 1982 was divided between the picture-sporting but otherwise very primitive “hi-res adventures” and, well, at this stage pretty much just Infocom, who offered no pictures but better and more of just about everything else. It would be another year or so before Infocom started aggressively marketing their lack of graphics as addition by subtraction, but already they were beginning to stand out from everyone else for their refusal to jump on the hi-res bandwagon.

The only company that didn’t fit comfortably into this bifurcation was Adventure International. The Scott Adams adventures were still built using the same technological blueprint Adams had developed way back in 1978, when his Adventureland became the first adventure game to reach microcomputers. They still had to fit, database and interpreter, into just 16 K of memory, meaning they combined the worst of both adventuring paradigms: the lack of pictures of Infocom and the primitive everything else of typical graphics games. Luckily, the games’ low system requirements made them ideal for a market virtually everyone else missed. In addition to comparatively powerful machines like the Apple II, Atari 400 and 800, and the new IBM PC, the computer industry of the early 1980s had a huge soft underbelly of cheap, low-powered machines like the TRS-80 Model 1 and 3, the TI-99/4A, and the king of this segment and bestselling computer in the world, the Commodore VIC-20. For these machines, the Scott Adams titles, with their need for only 16 K of memory and their ability to run off cassette or even (in the case of the VIC-20) cartridge, were literally the only adventure games in town. Adams had a captive market here, as uncontested as the general PC market had been back in 1978. For several years he fed very well upon it.

Yet it would be nice to compete on the bigger machines as well, wouldn’t it? To do that he would obviously need to improve his games, to bring them more in line with those of either On-Line or Infocom. Given the carelessness of the prose in his games, one might be tempted to immediately lump Adams in with On-Line as a Type 1 developer. Surprisingly, however, even in a 1984 interview he was still expressing ambivalence about the addition of graphics to adventure gaming: “I still do prefer text. The player is left to exercise his imagination and provide his own images, which is more exciting.” Still, it would be much easier to add graphics to his existing games, using the ample memory and disk space they left unused in a machine like the 48 K Apple II Plus, than to rewrite them from scratch with the better everything else of Infocom. And that was clearly the path of least commercial resistance. As he said in the same interview, “If we can provide graphics, and people want graphics, then we should let them have graphics.” The result was SAGA, the Scott Adams Graphic Adventures.

At the heart of each SAGA is the original non-graphic adventure’s data file. (Literally; even misspellings go uncorrected.) To this foundation AI’s long-term in-house artist, “Peppy,” added lots of bright, colorful illustrations, one for each location as well as the occasional bonus scene. Following On-Line’s lead, you can see the text “behind” a picture by hitting enter on an empty command line, and takeable objects show up in the pictures, lending them a certain degree of interactivity and functionality rather than serving strictly as decoration. However, there isn’t the persistent annoyance that dogs the On-Line games of always needing to wonder whether pieces of the illustrations not described in the text can nevertheless be interacted with. Because they are text adventures with hooks for graphics retrofitted after the fact, you can turn off the graphics entirely if you like without missing anything vital.

In preparation for writing this post, I played through the SAGA version of Pirate Adventure, Adams’s second game and the one, along with The Count and perhaps the original Adventureland, that is generally the most fondly remembered today. (In contrast to pretty much every other designer ever, Adams’s games tended to get less and less satisfying as his career progressed.) And indeed, Pirate Adventure, which was co-written by his wife of the time, Alexis Adams, shows Scott Adams with his best foot forward. This early in his career he did not yet feel the need to ratchet up the difficulty through increasingly absurd puzzles. Yes, there are still some parser frustrations as well as such Scott Adams-isms as UNLIGHT as the antonym of the verb LIGHT, but the central task of building a ship is fun, and there’s an enthusiastic, encouraging tone to the text (what there is of it) that makes the whole go down surprisingly easy even today, a remarkable feat for such an early, primitive effort. There’s even a smidge of the more dynamic storyworld that would appear in The Count, with a cracker-loving parrot and a rum-loving pirate who move about. The SAGA version, with lots of pictures that are perhaps not quite up with the best of On-Line but aren’t bad either, only adds to the charm — at least until the slowness of loading all those graphics from disk makes you opt for all-text mode again.

AI released SAGA versions of the first three of the Scott Adams dozen in 1982, followed by the next three the following year, while also continuing to market the text-only versions for low-end machines that couldn’t support the graphic versions. Some of the OtherVentures also got their graphical due. A changing market and changing priorities after that meant that the remaining titles never got converted.

In their time the SAGA games served their purpose of breathing new life into this stable of old, comparatively unsophisticated games. Sure, Adventure International continued to look a bit low rent in comparison to slicker publishers, but their games were relatively inexpensive and, at their best, fun. For plenty of eager adventurers who had exhausted the works of other publishers, or who lacked the machine or the money to access them, Scott Adams and his OtherVentures buddies still held plenty of appeal. They could even do one thing the competition couldn’t: they could talk. That is, when running on a computer with a Votrax Type ‘n Talk, the first hardware-based speech synthesizer to arrive for PCs. Sure, it was a gimmick, but it was a clever one, and one that probably sold some SAGAs on its own.

If you’d like to check out SAGA for yourself, here’s Pirate Adventure for the Apple II.

 
 

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A Busy 1980

When we last left Scott Adams at the end of 1979, he was poised to take this adventuring thing to the proverbial next level, with a solid catalog of games already available on a number of platforms, with perhaps the best name recognition in the nascent computer-game industry, and with a new company — Adventure International — ready to publish his works and the works of others under its own imprint. The following year saw him realize all of that potential and more, to take a place at the forefront of a new industry.

Adventure International grew by leaps and bounds for the next few years, while always remaining, like everything Adams touched, indelibly stamped with the personality of its founder. AI was the Dollar General of the early software industry. Its catalogs are filled with a ramshackle collection of software of every stripe. In addition to the expected text adventures from Adams and others (many of these also using Adams’s engine), there were arcade clones (“far superior to any Space Invader game for the TRS-80 microcomputer so far”, announces the blurb for Invaders Plus, with more honesty than legal wisdom); space strategy games (Galactic Empire and Galactic Trader); chess programs (“although a graphic display of the chess board is provided, it is recommended than actual chess board be used during play…”); board game adaptations (Micropoly, which is once again foolish enough to advertise that it is a clone of Monopoly right in the promotional text); even TRS-80 Opera, which let one listen to the William Tell overture via a transistor radio set in close proximity to the machine’s cassette port (the TRS-80’s lack of proper RF shielding was not always such a bad thing). And for when fun-and-games time was over, there were also math programs, print spoolers, programming tools, drawing programs, and educational software to hand, the latter evincing the usual fascination with states and their capitals that was so common amongst early programmers. All of this software was relatively cheap, with $9.95 or $14.95 being the most common price points, and somewhat… variable… in quality. Still, there was a thrill to be had in walking the virtual aisles of the AI catalogs, gazing at the shelves groaning with the output of a expanding new industry, wondering what crazy (not to say hare-brained) idea would be around the next bend. Hovering over the whole scene was always the outsized personality of Adams himself, who would remain throughout AI’s brief but busy lifetime an unusually visible company leader. (A reading of the legal fine print shows AI itself to be merely “a division of Scott Adams, Inc.”)

The year 1980 represents an important historical moment for the entertainment-software industry. A few exceptions such as Microsoft and Automated Simulations aside, computer games had previously been distributed as a sideline by semi-amateurs who hung their Ziploc baggies up in the local computer store and signed up with the hobbyist distribution services run by SoftSide and Creative Computing magazines. Now, though, companies like AI and a few others that sprung up around the same time began to professionalize the field. Within a few years the Ziploc baggies would be replaced with slick, colorful boxes stuffed with glossy manuals and other goodies, and the semi-amateurs in their home offices and bedrooms with real development studios whose members did this stuff for a living. Computer games were becoming a viable business, bringing more resources onto the scene that would soon allow for bigger and more ambitious creations than anything yet seen, but also bringing all the complications and loss of innocence associated with monetizing a labor of love.

In light of the explosive growth of his company, it’s no surprise that Adams’s creation of new adventures slowed down dramatically at this point. Some of his energy was consumed — and not for the last time — with repackaging his already extant games. All received pen-and-watercolor cover illustrations courtesy of an artist known as “Peppy,” whose colorful if unpolished style perfectly suited the gonzo enthusiasm of Adams’s prose.

AI released just two new Adams-penned adventures in 1980: the Western pastiche Ghost Town in the spring and Savage Island Part One, first of a two-parter advertised as difficult enough for the hardcore of the hardcore, just in time for Christmas. I thought we’d take a closer look at the first of these to see how far Adams’s art had progressed since The Count.

The simple but painful answer to that question is: not at all, really. In fact, it has regressed in many ways. The Western setting was apparently merely the next on Adams’s list of genre touchstones to cover, as it does little to inform the experience of play. Ghost Town is a plotless treasure hunt, just like Adventureland; it’s as if the The Count never happened: “Drop treasures then score.” Sigh.

We rob the saloon of its cash box just because it’s there. Double sigh.

Worse, even as a treasure hunt Ghost Town is neither entertaining nor satisfying. A few quips such as the response to trying to GO MIRROR (“I’m not Alice!”) aside, Ghost Town has lost some of the friendly warmth that made one somewhat willing to forgive the earlier games their own dodgy moments. The useful HELP command with its little nudges and food for thought has disappeared entirely, while the puzzles have devolved into a veritable catalog of design sins. Adams had been slowly ramping up the difficulty of each successive game that he wrote, apparently expecting his player to work through the games in order and thus to be prepared by the time they faced Ghost Town. I suppose that’s a reasonable enough approach in the abstract, but in reality there is no way to train for the puzzles in Ghost Town. Even some of the least objectionable require considerable outside knowledge, of things like the composition of gunpowder or the translation of Morse code.

Of course, in 1980, a time when Wikipedia was not a browser bookmark away, tracking down this sort of information might require a trip to the local library.

Other puzzles require us to see the room in question exactly as Adams pictured it, despite his famously terse room descriptions that do little more than list the objects therein. Still others reward only dogged persistence rather than insight, such as requiring us to tote a shovel around the map and dig in every single room to see whether anything turns up. Yet more, the worst of all, are protracted battles with the parser. How long it would take the average player to divine that she must SAY GIDYUP to get the horse to move is something I don’t even want to think about — nor how long she might fruitlessly try mixing the charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter together before finally just typing MAKE GUNPOWDER. At times the parser seems not just technically limited but intentionally cruel.

Typing just GUNPOWDER as opposed to WITH GUNPOWDER at the above prompt results in a generic failure message. My experience with Ghost Town makes me more enamored than ever of the idea that these early games were simply too technologically limited to support difficult puzzles that were also fair and logically tenable, that ramping up their difficulty beyond a certain rather low threshold inevitably resulted in nonsense like so many of the puzzles in Ghost Town and the absurd end-game of Adventure.

It’s also tempting to conclude that Adams himself simply lacked the vision to continue to push the text adventure forward. Tempting, but not entirely correct. For a couple of years Adams wrote an occasional column for SoftSide magazine. In the November, 1980, addition he announced a planned new adventuring system called Odyssey, which would take advantage of disk-drive-equipped systems in the same way as did Microsoft Adventure, using all of that storage space as an auxiliary memory store. His plans were ambitious to say the least:

1. More than one player in an Odyssey at one time. Players may help (or hinder) one another as they see fit!
2. Full paragraphs instead of “baby talk,” e.g., “Shoe the horse with the horseshoe and the hammer and nails.”
3. Longer messages;
4. sound effects; and
5. expanded plot lines.

To develop this system I have actually had to develop a new type of computer language which I call OIL (Odyssey Interpretive Language) which is implemented by a special Odyssey assembler that generates Odyssey machine code. This machine code is then implemented on each different micro, e.g. Apple, TRS-80, etc., through a special host emulator to simulate my nonexistent Odyssey computer.

Currently (as of the Washington computer show, Sept., 1980) the system is in the final stages of implementing a host emulator on a TRS-80 32 K disk system and writing the first Odyssey (which has been sketched out and is tentatively entitled Martian Odyssey) in OIL to run on the emulator. I hope that by the time your are reading this, Odyssey Number One will be available from your local computer store of favorite mail order house.

The technical conception of Odyssey sounds remarkably similar to what would soon be rolled out by a tiny Massachusetts startup called Infocom. Interestingly, Marc Blank and Stu Galley of Infocom had laid out in the abstract the design of their virtual machine, the “Z-Machine,” in an article in Creative Computing just a couple of months before Adams wrote these words. Could he have been inspired by that article?

Whatever the answer to that question, Martian Odyssey of course never appeared, and to my knowledge Adams never mentioned the Odyssey system again. For better and (ultimately) for worse, he elected to stick with what had brought him this far — meaning treasure hunts runnable on low-end 16 K computers equipped only with cassette drives. That strategy would continue to pay off handsomely enough for a few more years, yet it’s hard not to wonder about the path not taken, the territory ceded without a fight to Infocom and others. From 1980 on, Adams is more interesting as a businessman and an enabler for others than as a software artist in his own right. On that note, I want to talk about a few of the more interesting creations to stand alongside Adams’s own adventures in the jumble of the Adventure International catalog next time.

If you’d like to try Ghost Town, here’s a version you can load into the MESS emulator using its “Devices -> Quickload” function.

 
 

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The Count

The Count opens with a title screen that would become iconic and almost bizarrely long-lived, finding its way not only to all of the other games in the classic Scott Adams series on the TRS-80 but to all of those other platforms on which the line would eventually arrive as well. Even when the games were ported to the illustrated SAGA system, this screen was little changed.

The Count title screen

Looking at it, a few things are immediately striking. First there is Adams’s indelible, lackadaisically enthusiastic writing style that stamps all of his games better than could their maker’s signature. As near as I can tell, the interpreter is called simply ADVENTURE and is at version 8.2 already (!), while the game of The Count itself (“Adventure Number 5”) is at version 1.15. The plea which concludes the message shows that software piracy was already a significant problem in 1979, and not just a bugaboo of Bill Gates. As time went on, it would of course only become a bigger issue, as pirates formed sophisticated distribution networks and a whole fascinating if amoral subculture of their own; I’ll talk more about that when we get there. Still, Adams was himself not above stretching the truth a bit to get his point across; he obviously didn’t spend “over a year” developing The Count when he released five other games in 1979 alone. (Or perhaps he was referring to the system of ADVENTURE as a whole?)

But, you might be asking, why does the text look so funny? Well, you may remember my saying that the standard TRS-80 did not come equipped with support for lower-case letters. In a sense, that’s only partially true. The character ROM, which contained the glyphs for all displayable characters, did have glyphs for all lower-case as well as upper-case letters; presumably it was, like most components of the TRS-80, an off-the-shelf part that was easier to leave alone than it would have been to modify to remove the extra glyphs. What the TRS-80 really lacked was a way to input lower-case. The ever-inventive aftermarket soon addressed this with various modification kits, one of which Adams had obviously acquired by early 1979. Even with the kit, though, the TRS-80’s display, having been designed with only upper-case in mind, still lacked the concept of descenders. Thus letters like “y,” “p,” and “g” are perched on the line rather than dangling below, creating the decidedly odd appearance you see in the image above. Like everything that doesn’t kill you, you get used to it.

But now let me talk about The Count specifically, and what makes it such a unique and interesting entry in the Adams canon. While Mission Impossible had introduced the use of time in the direct service of plot in the form of a (literally) ticking time-bomb, The Count goes much, much further. As it begins, we wake up in a bedroom of a house that is being haunted by Dracula himself. We have been placed there by the frightened inhabitants of the local village, and given strict instructions to either kill Dracula or die — or, presumably, become a vampire ourselves — in the process. (Of course, thanks to the typically sparse text, lack of supporting documentation, and old-school design we infer all this only when we attempt to leave the house and get killed by an angry mob, all of which leaves one to wonder whether Dracula or the villagers are the more evil… but we’ll let all that go.) The plot unfolds over the next three — or, just possibly, four — afternoons and evenings, during which we must maneuver everything into position to finally administer the obligatory stake through the heart that ends Dracula’s reign.

Not only does time pass over the course of these days, with afternoon trailing into night (with the expected effect on the general lighting situation), but there are actual plot-related events that happen in the storyworld, in the form of a pair of deliveries on the first and second afternoon.

As always, we don’t want to go too far here; this still isn’t anything close to a serious, nuanced story, as the game remains firmly entrenched in the usual jokey Scott Adams style.

What we do have here, though, is a storyworld that is at least in some senses more dynamic than anything we’ve seen before; while Adventure could boast the independently moving dwarfs and pirate that were surprisingly sophisticated in their way, its world was otherwise static prior to the triggering of the endgame, and lacked any sense of time other than the expiring lantern. Notably, The Count adds a WAIT verb, a command that would have been superfluous in earlier games, as the player must plan her actions around the time of day and those all-important package deliveries.

In practice, the game plays out like a whole new type of systemic meta-puzzle, as the player maps out how events unfold and how everything works — dying countless times in the process — to come up with a final plan for victory. The Count introduces nothing less than a whole new paradigm of play for the text adventure, one focused not on geographic exploration (the map is very small and manageable for the era) but on dynamic, systemic thinking that feels much closer to engaging with a narrative. Its system is even sophisticated enough to support quite a number of different paths to victory; virtually every walkthrough for the game I was able to find has its own unique approach.

Still, at times the boundaries between the system of the storyworld and the system of the program are hazy, such that one is often left feeling one is playing the program rather than playing the story. For instance, one travels between floors using a dumbwaiter (the lack of a staircase is one of those sins against mimesis we can forgive in such an early, primitive game). If one passes out and is put to bed (presumably by Dracula) for the night while on another floor than the one containing the bedroom, the dumbwaiter is left on the former floor, locking one out of victory. This of course makes no sense in the storyworld — whoever heard of a dumbwaiter that can only be raised or lowered by someone riding on it? — but is a limitation of the program. Indeed, much about solving the game can be more tedious than fun; the learning-by-death syndrome is one that even Infocom would never entirely solve in its similarly dynamic mysteries. Frustrations like these make The Count perhaps less entertaining as a game than it is interesting as technology and as a concept; nor does its ending exactly pull out all the stops.

Adams himself didn’t do much to build on these concepts, largely retreating to treasure hunts and similarly static designs in subsequent games, leaving this approach to be taken up by Infocom three years later with the groundbreaking Deadline. But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

If you’d like to play The Count in its original form yourself, here is a CMD file you can load into the MESS emulator using “Device –> Quickload” from the emulator menu.

 

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